Next Board Meeting – March17, 2015

Date/time:        6:45 pm on March 17

Place:               West Windsor Branch, Mercer County Library
333 North Post Rd, Princeton Junction NJ 

All AAAP members are invited to attend.


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Connecting Dark Matter Halos with the Galaxy Center and the Super Massive Black Hole

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at 7:30 p.m – Bowen Hall, Princeton University

The AAAP welcomes Princeton University observational astrophysicist Andy Goulding as its March 10th guest speaker. Dr. Goulding graduated from the University of Durham (UK) with a MSc in Theoretical Physics in 2007, and in 2010, completed his doctoral dissertation at the UK Institute for Computational Cosmology on the identification of the full population of active galactic nuclei in the nearby Universe. Goulding moved to the US to take a position as a Smithsonian research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, and moved to Princeton University in 2014 as a research associate in the department of astrophysical sciences.

Andy’s research is concentrated around the understanding of the physical mechanisms by which all supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies grow, and the investigation of the interplay between black hole growth, in the form of Active Galactic Nuclei, and the properties of their host galaxies. Using some of the largest and sophisticated telescopes ever constructed, he studies how known observational and theoretical relations between black holes and their galaxies become established: Are black holes hidden from our view by the same material that causes them to grow? If so, how did this fuel arrive at the black hole, and what is its geometric configuration – does the geometry affect the rate at which the black hole grows? What was the trigger for the growth of the black hole; does dark matter have a role to play in this; and are growing black holes preferentially found in particular galaxies?

Don’t miss this exciting presentation describing some of the more cutting edge, dynamic research occurring in the current astrophysics community.

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From the Director





by Rex Parker, PhD 

Upcoming AAAP events.  We’re working on a variety of activities to make this the most accessible and fun year ever for astronomy in the AAAP.  In addition to the regular public meetings each month on the Princeton campus, here are a few upcoming events being planned for members to participate in. More detailed info will be forthcoming next month.

  • Field trip to the US Naval Observatory in D.C. (spring)
  • Members-only special night at Washington Crossing Observatory (spring)
  • Regular public open house Friday nights at the Observatory (April-Oct)
  • Observing weekend at the renowned astronomy dark sky site, Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania (July)
  • Easy road trip to see the famed Bell Labs Horn Antenna, Holmdel NJ, where the cosmic microwave radiation was first discovered (summer)

The recent AAAP tour of Princeton Plasma Physics Lab was a hit, with  about 25 members participating in a private, behind-the-scenes look at the leading U.S. center for fusion energy and plasma physics research (see PPPL article and photos elsewhere in this issue).

Beware the Ides of March? From history and the arts, a sense of danger accompanies the phrase “beware the Ides of March”.  Back in 44BC, Julius Caesar was forewarned by a seer that he’d come to harm not later than the Ides of March, a prophecy which came to pass and drastically changed the Roman Republic.  Okay, admittedly I’ve not seen Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” where the famous line is spoken, but at least have met his heir Octavius in “Antony and Cleopatra” at McCarter this winter.  The Roman calendar was based on moon phases with the Ides occurring at mid-month (day 15 for March) corresponding to the full moon.  So really the Ides of March no longer casts a foreboding spell but announces the end of winter and rebirth of spring with the coming equinox!

Spring is galaxy season.  With the equinox, we can begin getting outdoors again in both day and night.  More galaxies can be seen in moderately-sized telescopes in spring than any other season, with the incredibly dense galaxy clusters in Virgo leading the pack. If you’ve never seen a galaxy through the eyepiece of a good telescope, this spring will be a great opportunity to try it.  Upgrades now underway at AAAP’s Washington Crossing Observatory from our recent equipment acquisition and video astronomy technology project will make it even more fun.  We hope that recent and long-time members will come out to experience the celestial wonders “hands-on” this spring.  Those interested in learning to use the equipment for your own studies and to be a part of our extensive public outreach programs are urged to attend the regular meetings and talk to Observatory co-chairs, Gene Ramsey and Dave & Jennifer Skitt to develop a plan for your training (e-mail:

Should AAAP join the Night Sky Network?  Here’s an opportunity for AAAP to join a national organization of affiliated astronomy clubs with connections to NASA/JPL.  The Night Sky Network is a coalition of amateur astronomy clubs designed to bring astronomy and the excitement of NASA missions to communities. Applying for club (free) membership can bring several benefits that are described on the Network website,  The Network is a partnership of amateur astronomy clubs, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and other organizations.  The goal is to help amateur astronomers share knowledge, time and telescopes to bring amazing and emerging aspects of astronomy to the public. Ongoing research by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Institute for Learning Innovation shows that amateur astronomers need and desire support of their outreach efforts. The Night Sky Network was inaugurated and has been expanded to help meet these needs.  Please browse their website, and we can discuss it at the AAAP meeting on March 10.

Messier-106, a Seyfert galaxy in Canes Venatici. Image taken by Rex Parker in Titusville NJ. Equipment: SXVR-M25C camera, AG Optical 12.5-inch Dall-Kirkham astrograph, Paramount-MX mount. Processed in Maxim DL v.5 and PS-CS5.

Messier-106, a Seyfert galaxy in Canes Venatici. Image taken by Rex Parker in Titusville NJ. Equipment: SXVR-M25C camera, AG Optical 12.5-inch Dall-Kirkham astrograph, Paramount-MX mount. Processed in Maxim DL v.5 and PS-CS5.

Color in the deep sky — under New Jersey skies? The beautiful intense colors in astrophotos of the Messier and other deep sky objects, with glowing reds and blue-greens emitted by vast ionized hydrogen and oxygen gas clouds among the stars, have become familiar sights on NASA and Hubble internet sites and in those big glossy coffee table books. Galaxies also emit intense light energy in the violet, blue, and red bands due to numerous regions where young stars are being born (the H-II regions). But the deep sky color pallet is actually quite subtle and almost never visible in a telescope eyepiece due to the limits of human eye physiology and the faintness of the light captured by the telescope.  We rely on CCD imaging techniques which fortunately have advanced remarkably over the past 15 years or so.

Experts, often working in high altitude desert locations with very dark skies, usually approach color astro-imaging using the “LRGB” method.  Here many subframes are taken over the course of several hours with a high sensitivity monochrome CCD through a telescope using a sequence of color filters (Luminance, Red, Green, Blue = LRGB).  The individual filtered subframes are then calibrated and combined and balanced in the computer to create the final color images.  Here in central Jersey our less-than-pristine skies introduce serious challenges even with top-notch equipment.  Moon and skyglow backgrounds along with light pollution gradients conspire with changing weather, humidity, and seeing conditions over the course of a single New Jersey night, often introducing nearly intractable noise and light gradients in the LRGB-derived images.

NGC4631, the “Whale Galaxy” in Coma Bernices. Image by Rex Parker, taken in Titusville NJ.  Equipment: SXVR-M25C camera, AG Optical 12.5-inch Dall-Kirkham astrograph, Paramount-MX mount.  Processed in Maxim DL v.5 and PS-CS5.

NGC4631, the “Whale Galaxy” in Coma Bernices. Image by Rex Parker, taken in Titusville NJ. Equipment: SXVR-M25C camera, AG Optical 12.5-inch Dall-Kirkham astrograph, Paramount-MX mount. Processed in Maxim DL v.5 and PS-CS5.

But there is hope for New Jersey astronomers!  Whether you are considering astrophotography, or are already on the learning curve, you don’t necessarily have to buy that remote property or telescope time-share in the desert southwest.  After more than 12 years using the LRGB imaging method, I began to consider whether a “one-shot color” astronomical CCD camera would potentially produce better results under New Jersey skies.  The much reduced hardware complexity and lower weight and telescope balancing issues with one-shot color cameras add to their potential attractiveness over the LRGB technology.  The one-shot color approach uses a CCD sensor with a Bayer-matrix of RGB filters directly on the sensor itself (like terrestrial DSLR cameras). Once acquired the images are “de-Bayered” to convert to color using software after many subframes are calibrated and stacked.  The idea of using a one-shot color camera disputes much of the expert advice out there, which warns that these cameras are unsuited to light-polluted areas.  I wanted to test whether this was true, and theorized that the ability to capture all colors simultaneously in each subframe could actually minimize the noise/gradient issues which change over the course of an imaging run here in New Jersey. Further, it is proposed that the final resolution could equal that of the LRGB method if the image scale is appropriately selected (that is, CCD pixel dimensions must be carefully matched to telescope focal length).

Perhaps it should have been obvious that testing this hypothesis during winter would mean working in near-zero temperatures – that slowed things down a bit for me! The images above are a couple of first attempts (from February) to see color in galaxies imaged from central New Jersey using the one-shot color CCD method. The plan going forward is to make comparisons of both color approaches for a variety of deep sky objects, to determine if the one-shot color method is truly a better option than LRGB for our local sky conditions.

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From the Assistant Director

by Larry Kane, Assistant Director 

On, Sunday, February 22, the Washington Crossing Park Association successfully pulled off its first major event.  It was held to celebrate the birthday of George Washington.  Over eighty people attended the event to hear three academic historians describe the role of New Jersey in the American Revolution and the major battles that took place here.  Because the AAAP made a donation of $100 to the WCPA, the group made our club a co-sponsor of the event.  My wife Marlene and I staffed the AAAP table at the event and we took advantage of the opportunity to talk about astronomy in general and the AAAP in particular.  I have attached a picture of our table.

Marlene Kane at the Washington Crossing Park Association event. Credit: Larry Kane

Marlene Kane at the Washington Crossing Park Association event. Credit: Larry Kane

I am urging that all AAAP members and friends consider joining the Washington Crossing Park Association.  The group was formed to, and works toward maintaining and improving the park in which our observatory is sited.  The result of the passage of question number 2 on last November’s election ballot was to drastically reduce funding for parks and preservation.   In response, the WCPA is working to inform the public and those organizations with a stake in the maintenance and improvement New Jersey’s state parks.  For more information about ballot question 2 and its ramifications, please see me.

On Wednesday, February 25, I attended a hearing of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Ewing Township.  This single hearing in Mercer County was called to gather information on the PennEast natural gas pipeline that will be built through Mercer County and end in Hopewell.  Many residents with relevant scientific backgrounds testified on the negative environmental impact and potential explosive danger that the proposed 36” pipeline poses.   The proposed pipeline route will take it within a quarter mile of the observatory.  Stay tuned for further developments.

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In Memoriam: Tony Miskowski

by John Church

Tony Miskowski, an active AAAP member from the 70’s and 80’s, passed away on February 22nd. Tony was one of the chief builders of our observatory in Washington Crossing State Park in the late 70’s. He had a warm personality and was physically strong and capable. I remember him lifting heavy rocks out of the foundation ditch that nobody else could even budge and climbing up on the roof beams to help finish their attachments. The photo below shows Tony in the red plaid jacket helping to raise the east beam into place.

Erecting the Roof Beams at Washington-Crossing Observatory  Credit: Dick Perry

Erecting the East Beam at Washington-Crossing Observatory Credit: Dick Peery

Tony never missed our picnics and would customarily bring a hearty dish of kielbasa that was a great favorite of everyone’s. Those were memorable times indeed.

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Treasurer’s Report

by Michael Mitrano, Treasurer

The recent mailing to non-renewed members has yielded 23 renewals, as well as notes from a few members who will not be continuing for health or distance reasons. We are now up to 79 members or about three ahead of the same point last year. My goal is to get to as close to 100 as we can.

Otherwise, financial activity has been minimal during the month. Our new Mallincam is still on back order and I have made an inquiry about when it will be shipped.

On a cumulative basis at this date, the AAAP’s surplus is about $26 thousand.

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Minutes of the February 10, 2015 AAAP Meeting

by Jim Poinsett, Secretary

  • Rex brought the meeting to order and started a discussion on club activities.
  • Jim Poinsett presented the 10 inch Newtonian astrograph from the recent donation to the club. It’s use for the video project was discussed.
  • Rex discussed the club tour at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab mentioning that it was well attended and very interesting. We are looking for ideas for future club field trips. The Naval Observatory and Cherry Springs Park in PA were brought up as possibilities.
  • Bill Murray informed the club that he is now a full-time employee of the planetarium at the NJ State Museum.
  • Rex then introduced Gene Ramsey the speaker for the evening.
  • The club was informed that Kate Otto will not be returning as Program Chair. She is moving and no longer able to do the job. We will find a successor for next year. In addition, we need to find a nominating committee to compile a slate of candidates for next year.
  • There will be a board meeting soon, hopefully before the next general meeting. If not before the next meeting, then shortly afterward.
  • Trying to attach the new paramount to our existing pier will be tried the week after the Feb meeting. A report will be given at the next meeting.
  • The topic of the club library was brought up for discussion. It would be good to have a place where club members are able to access it. More discussion needs to be held. The possibility of asking Peyton Hall to donate space for a bookshelf was mentioned. A meeting will have to take place to discuss what to keep for the library and what to give away.
  • Additional discussion was held on club field trips. The Naval Observatory would be a Monday evening trip. There will be more discussion at the board meeting on how the club would travel to the site. Cherry Springs star party is in June. The date of a possible club trip would be mid-July.
  • StarQuest will be held on the new moon weekend in September.
  • The Horn Antenna at former Bell Labs in Holmdell was mentioned as another possibility for a field trip.
  • There being no further business, the meeting was adjourned.
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AAAP members pose at PPPL Credit: Michael Wright

AAAP members pose at PPPL Credit: Michael Wright

On February 4, 2015, AAAP was treated to a tour of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, our local DOE national laboratory and soon-to-be the world’s most powerful spherical fusion facility. John DeLopper, Head of Best Practices and Outreach conducted the two-hour tour of the facility.

John DeLooper, Director of Best Practices, PPPL

John DeLopper, Head of Best Practices, PPPL Credit: Michael Wright

Mr. DeLopper began the tour with a brief orientation and entertaining video about fusion energy:  We moved on to the control room where he explained in detail how PPPL researchers and collaborators run experiments on the reactor.

John DeLopper Talks to AAAP

John DeLopper explains the control room                          Credit: Michael Wright

Unfortunately, we could not see the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) reactor because it  is in the final stage of a $94 million upgrade to double its magnetic field and heating power, and increase its pulse length five times Instead, we saw the partially completed National Compact Stellarator Experiment (NCSX) reaction vessel.

NCSX Reaction Vessel

NCSX Reaction Vessel Credit: Michael Wright


The Stellarator, one of the first fusion reactors, created by Lyman Spitzer of Princeton University Credit: Michael Wright

In contrast, we saw one of the first fusion reactors, the Stellarator, created by Lyman Spitzer of Princeton University on display at PPPL, which shows that in the early years fusion research was done on the lab bench.

One of the important lessons learned from the tour is that fusion research should be high priority, perhaps higher than space exploration. While reaching for the stars may help us create refuges for mankind on other planets and moons, fusion has the potential to provide unlimited clean energy, eliminate carbon emissions and arrest climate change. The US government’s lack of resolve to adequately fund scientific research at levels needed to advance this country’s knowledge and maintain our scientific workforce is particularly detrimental to US fusion research at a time when it is most needed. Fortunately, the European Union is not so shortsighted and is leading the international effort to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. ITER aims to produce more energy from the fusion process than is used to start it, thereby making the transition from experimental studies to full-scale electricity-producing fusion power plants.

For more information on this exciting research in our own backyard:

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Triple Conjunction

by Brian Van Liew

Triple Conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Mars  Credit: Brian Van Liew

Triple Conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Mars Credit: Brian Van Liew

On the evening of February 20th, I stepped out to see a pleasant view toward the west. I got my Canon camera with a 55-250mm zoom lens and a monopod to get a shot of it before it set any lower. The sight was a triple conjunction of a couple of day old Moon, Venus and Mars. I tried a couple of shutter combinations until I got a good exposure. The camera settings were 1/10 second with the lens zoomed out to 250mm. I was getting cold so I gazed just a bit longer before heading inside as a sight that does not come along often.

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A Watchtower in Space

by Prasad Ganti

Very recently, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off into space with a payload. The launch was routine but the payload was something special. It carried a satellite called DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory). The observatory will take about a hundred days to reach its parking spot which is about a million miles from Earth.

DSCOVR Logo. Credit: NASA

DSCOVR Logo. Credit: NASA

The main mission of the satellite is to watch space weather and report back to Earth. Specifically, it will watch for a torrent of charged particles coming from the Sun towards the Earth, that has the potential to disrupt communications, computers and the power systems on the Earth and electronics in the satellites and the spacecraft near the Earth. The observatory can give advanced warning that such a gusher of charged particles is on its way so that precautionary measures can be taken.

The Sun is a huge nuclear fusion reactor fusing hydrogen together to form helium and held in balance by the collapsing gravitational forces caused by the huge mass and the nuclear forces trying to rip it apart. In the bargain, we get all the heat and light that sustains life on the Earth. The Sun also holds the entire solar system consisting of the planets and their satellites in orbit. This nuclear furnace has gone on for about five billion years since it started and will last for another five billion years until its hydrogen supply will be mostly exhausted.

Due to the hot nuclear reactions, the Sun is a very violent place in the Solar System. At such temperatures, matter exists not as a solid, liquid or a gas, but a fourth state called plasma. Essentially it is a soup of charged particles like protons and electrons not bound to each other. All these interactions result in cyclical solar flares, some minor and some major, much akin to tides and ocean tsunami.

Fortunately for us, Earth has a magnetic field surrounding it. This field results from a hot metallic core consisting of liquid iron and nickel at the center of the Earth. The magnetic field does an excellent job of keeping away the charged particles coming from the Sun but only partially. If the solar flare is very intense, the protection breaks down. It has happened in the past in 1859 during the Carrington Event, which set telegraph wires on fire. Now the Earth is a much more technologically sophisticated place, and the human race has a lot of investment and dependency to lose. Much more is at stake now than ever before in human history. Any early warning system, like our weather prediction system, will be helpful. That is the job that this observatory will be performing.

Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA

Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA

The observatory will be positioned a million miles away from Earth. What is so magical about this number ? One reason is that to observe an object, it is better to be closer than farther away from it. A million miles away from Earth is a million miles closer to the Sun. At that distance, the gravitational pull from the Earth balances the pull from the Sun. The observatory will consume less fuel at this point called the Lagrange point or L1 between the Earth and the Sun.

The observatory has secondary duties of monitoring the climate on the Earth. Beaming back data about ozone and aerosol amounts, cloud height, ultraviolet radiation and other information gathered by its cameras. The observatory is scheduled to last for two years, but it may last longer because it has fuel for five years. I am sure there will be something else after the lifetime of this observatory. Something else to warn us in the future. Something else for me to write about! Certainly, we are living in exciting times!

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Submitted by David Kaplan except as noted

At the D&R Greenway Trust’s Marie L. Matthews Gallery at the Johnson Education Center until March 20: “High Noon to Midnight Moon: Talismans of the Horizon” submitted by Michael Wright

Living with a Star
Even a slight change in the precariously controlled violence of the sun, an enormous thermonuclear furnace, can have drastic consequences on Earth. NYTimes

Shooting the Moon
A loose-knit group of photographers in Los Angeles meet monthly with a very specific purpose: to make the perfect photograph of planes set against the moon.

Rarely Seen Images From Space Including the ‘Best Selfie Ever’
More than 700 vintage photographs from the early days of space exploration are to be auctioned Thursday. NYTimes

Black Hole’s Blast Stunts Stars
The winds blasted out by supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies are strong enough to slow the birth of new stars, astronomers reveal.

Alien Star Invaded the Solar System
An alien star passed through our Solar System just 70,000 years ago, astronomers have announced.

Mars Rover Finds Stronger Potential for Life
The case for an early Mars that was ripe and ready for living organisms has grown stronger. NYTimes

Collider Hopes for a ‘Super’ Restart
When Large Hadron Collider fires up again after its upgrade, scientists will be hoping to find a new particle they say could “rock the world”. BBC

Mystery Mars Haze Baffles Scientists
Scientists struggle to explain a vast haze that was spotted high above the Martian surface in 2012 by amateur astronomers. BBC

‘Exquisite’ Gravity Probe Leaves UK
UK industry completes construction of the modules that make up the Lisa Pathfinder satellite – a remarkable probe that will test the key technologies needed to detect gravitational waves in space. BBC

Scientist: ‘Try to Contact Aliens’
Scientists at an US meeting have said it is now time to actively try to contact intelligent life on other worlds. BBC

News for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab submitted by Michael Wright

‘Bright Spot’ on Ceres Has Dimmer Companion

New NASA Space Cowboy Successfully Deploys Its ‘Lasso’

NASA Earth Missions Expand View of Home Planet

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